[S]lavery is exploitation, violence, and injustice all rolled together in their most potent combination. If there is one fundamental violation of our humanity we cannot allow, it is slavery…If we cannot choose to stop slavery, how can we say that we are free? Kevin Bales, Disposable People (1999)




Laura Nyantung Beny

December 1999

Uncomfortable as it may be, slavery and/or its related discourse has been a constant phenomenon in Sudanese history. First, there was the indisputable systematic pre-colonial slavery , which consisted of the enslavement of Sudanese of African descent by the Turks and “Arabized” Sudanese. It was legally abolished in the 1920s under British colonial rule, despite the self-interested protest of the Sudan’s ruling elite. Unfortunately, however, the vocabulary of slavery (e.g., glib references to the so-called abd and abeed in casual conversation even today, 1999) and its associated system of racial and class stratification never really died in the Sudan (An-Na’im, Deng). In this brief article, I focus on the tragic re-emergence of physical slavery, the first reports of which surfaced in the late1980s during the parliamentary democracy of Sadiq al-Mahdi and his coalition government (Baldo and Mahmoud). Allegations of slavery and slavery-like practices have increased exponentially since the ascension to power of the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime in June 1989. The primary alleged victims have been overwhelmingly women and children.

It is my contention that the practices, as alleged by the victims, constitute legal slavery rather than mere hostage taking as some observers, including the NIF regime, continue to insist. I base this conclusion solidly on the relatively objective definitions of slavery and slavery-liked practices that are contained in the Slavery Convention and the Supplementary Convention on Slavery. I resort to these internationally-accepted legal definitions in large part because they provide a relatively objective benchmark by which to legally categorize the alleged abductions and the alleged subsequent harms inflicted upon captives. This enables me to avoid the ad hoc subjective assessments that continue to dominate the discussion and therefore stifle proactive responses. More importantly perhaps, the legal conventions delineate standards of accountability and liability of the accused. In addition, I address slave redemption and the moral and economic issues that it implicates. Finally, I conclude that the primary, horrific issue of modern slavery in the Sudan has been obscured – deliberately? – under the fog of secondary debates (first, the definitional debate and later the redemption debate). As a result, I contend that both the GOS and the international community have dodged their responsibility to the alleged human victims of slavery in the Sudan. Furthermore, this failure of responsibility lies in blatant violation of the Slavery Convention of 1927, its Supplement of 1957, and other international human rights instruments and therefore might be legally actionable in an international court.

The practices said to comprise slavery in the Sudan have been widely documented. Village raids and abductions are carried out in the context of the civil war. They occur primarily in the Bahr Al-Ghazal Region of southern Sudan; however, others have noted similar occurances in the Nuba Mountains (Hale). Since the late 1980s, the GOS has altered the balance of power in historical inter-tribal fueds by recruiting the members of “Arabized” tribes into its Popular Defense Forces (PDFs). These militias are quasi-public due to support they enjoy from the GOS. According to the Sudan Human Rights Organization, Cairo (SHROC), “[e]ach conscript is provided with a horse, a machine gun, and 50,000 pounds to raid the villages suspected by authorities as supporters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The raiders are allowed to keep whoever is taken captive from the victimized citizens, in addition to cattle and other property as booty and loot of the regime’s…Jihad.” The militias allegedly abduct mainly women and children, which raises a host of supplementary human rights issues of special concern, particularly gender and child rights issues.

According to the SHROC’s interviews with alleged victims, the captives are removed from their home villages and taken to remote areas further north. In transit, they are frequently abused: “During these voyages, a large number of men with tightened hands and feet are beaten up on their heads with heavy sticks to death. Many youngsters are reserved for conscription, and the women are repeatedly raped by guards and men responsible for their movement. Every 9 or 10 citizens are tied together by a long rope” (SHROC). According to victims’ testimony, they are then acquired by new owners who subject them to unpaid, forced labor.

The alleged abuses during captivity have included involuntary female circumcision, battery, rape, branding, name change, Islamization, and verbal abuse often with strong racial undertones. Allegedly, captive women are frequently impregnated by their male captors and the resulting children are subordinated in status to the children of the wives of the latter. Alarmingly, victims’ accounts include allegations of forced female circumcision in medically dangerous conditions (without anesthetics, or proper hygiene). Some victims have alleged that they were not permitted a period of recovery but rather had to resume work immediately after such debilitating surgery.

Notwithstanding the wide ranging and consistent testimony on the foregoing practices from various sources but especially from the alleged victims themselves, many commentators have engulfed themselves in a debate over whether these allegations implicate slavery. Sadly, this debate has centered around subjective and ad hoc definitions of slavery. Little recourse has been made to an objective definition of slavery, despite its existence in two well-established and internationally-accepted documents, which deal specifically with slavery. These documents are the Slavery Convention of 1927 and the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, 1957 (hereafter Supplementary Convention).

The Slavery Convention of 1927, which the Sudan signed, defines slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” It defines the slave trade broadly as “all acts involved in the capture, acquisition or disposal of a person with intent to reduce him to slavery … with a view to selling or exchanging him … and, in general, every act of trade or transport in slaves.” The Supplementary Convention defines institutions and practices that are similar to slavery.

Application of these legal standards reveals that the alleged practices (abduction, forced labor, and the myriad of abuses) satisfy the definition of legal slavery. Without question, the alleged practices involve powers of ownership, since captives are unable to change their status. The fact that victims’ allegations include claims of forced labor suggests a master-subordinate relationship, which directly implicates slavery as legally defined. Furthermore, consistent with the legal definition of the slave trade, the alleged practices involve “the capture, acquisition or disposal of a person with intent to reduce him to slavery,” etc. (Slavery Convention). Nevertheless, while acknowledging the abductions, the GOS and a few others (including renowned Sudanese intellectuals) persistently claim that the phenomenon is not slavery per se but mere hostage taking which has been occurring among tribes in the region for centuries, or that captives are merely prisoners of war. However, these claims are disingenuous. They all too conveniently fail to address the fact that victims of abduction have consistently reported that they have been subjected to forced labor and many of the abuses discussed above. According to Peter Verney, “[a]lthough sometimes the distinction between short-term hostage-taking and actual enslavement becomes blurred, there is no doubt that many people are held for years and treated as property” (Verney). Nor does it seem that victims are merely kept as prisoners of war. Their testimony suggests that they are often transferred by the militias into domestic work situations controlled by other civilians, who are neither official armed forces nor members of the quasi-public militias, the PDFs.

Another spurious argument put forth by the GOS and others is that slavery could not possibly exist because the GOS does not condone slavery, and further, slavery is illegal in the Sudan. However, as the legal definition of slavery shows, there need not be government acceptance or direct support of the practice. The Slavery Convention does not contain a requirement that the perpertrator(s) be government actors. Therefore, the prohibition extends to private actors. This implies that even if the government itself cannot be implicated in slavery directly, it is liable as long as it fails to penalize private actors who engage in the practice. That said, however, the evidence suggests that the GOS has been more than a passive actor by its policy of arming the militias and giving them virtual carte blanche to take what they seize, including human beings. Therefore the GOS is at least an indirect participant in the enslavement of some of the Sudan’s citizens. In response to the GOS’s shaky argument that slavery is illegal in the Sudan, suffice it that laws are not sacred, least of all in the Sudan. One would be hard pressed indeed to come up with just one human rights law or standard that has not been violated repeatedly during NIF rule (Human Rights Watch World Report 1999). I extend that challenge to any skeptic. Moreover, I am unaware of any legal system where it is possible to dismiss a claim that a law has been violated merely by pointing to the very existence of the law. That is the height of tautology, if not the peak of intellectual dishonesty and the depth of moral baseness (in light of victims’ testimony). Indeed, the fact that the GOS has recently passed new slavery laws and has declared an intention to rigorously punish violators suggests that it has tacitly admitted that slavery is occurring.


Redemption of slaves for western money has sparked yet another debate, which obscures the complexity and urgency of the underlying problem. Redemption of captives is not a novel idea. Indigenous (i.e., local) mechanisms existed before the relatively recent involvement of western evangelical organizations. Christian organizations from the West first started redeeming slaves in 1995 – many years after slavery was first alleged in the late 1980s during the parliamentary period. Christian Solidarity International (CSI) undoubtedly is the largest among roughly 12 western organizations that practice redemption. It claims to have redeemed roughly 8,000 slaves since it began in 1995. Redemption works as follows: middlemen (traders) purchase slaves from their owners and bring them to westerners, that in turn pay them in hard currency. The redemption price has been around $50 (US) over the last two years. This is a substantial price relative to the Sudan’s income per capita which is roughly $500 a year.

There are three main objections to redemption: a moral objection, an economic incentive objection, and a fraud inducement objection. The moral objection contends that it is morally reprehensible (unethical) to purchase another human being, regardless of the underlying circumstances, because it involves the commodification of a human being. However, this anti-utilitarian stance overlooks the fact that redemption was always one means employed (among several) in the historical fight against slavery and the slave trade, and in particular precisely by people who objected to the commodification of other human beings. Furthermore, people who argue against western redemption on this ground are still confronted with the reality that indigenous methods of redemption pre-dated western intervention and in fact continue. Are these people prepared, for the sake of consistency, to defend the argument that these indigenous mechanisms are unethical as well? So far, I have not heard such a defense. Nevertheless, this is not to deny that the infusion of western cash might negatively alter the effectiveness of pre-existing methods of liberation, a possibility that leads to the second objection.

The economic incentive objection to western redemption is that it is only worsening matters because it presents lucrative profit opportunities to slave raiders and traders. This stems from the fact that the average price of redemption is relatively high compared to national income per capita. A related argument is that redemption reduces the incentive for releasing those currently in bondage, by boosting the perceived investment value (and reducing the relative cost of holding a slave). Also, by increasing the profits of middlemen who fetch the slaves from their owners and take them to western redeemers for cash, redemption may cause some of these traders to give up trading in other goods in order to focus entirely on the more lucrative slave business. The fact that “a typical raiding party has grown from roughly 400 attackers in 1995 [the year when western redemption started] to more than 2,500 this year” might lend some support to the argument that western redemption has worsened the problem (Miniter). In fact, local leaders are divided on this question. Some believe that western redemption has made the situation worse; others, however, believe the opposite (SHRO Report). All are unanimous, however, that something must be done to stop slavery.

Nevertheless, without statistical figures on the year to year covariance of raids and abductions with the price of redemption, one should proceed with caution before speaking of causality. Also, so many other variables have been changing simultaneously with changes in the numbers of raids, including the intensity of the war, the continued arming of additional militias by the GOS, and the economic environment (whose steady deterioration might have increased the attractiveness of raids relative to other profitable endeavors). Furthermore, it should be noted that militia raids and reports of slavery increased independently of western redemption (i.e., between 1989 and 1995 before the advent of western redemption).

Related to the economic incentive argument is the argument that western redemption induces fraud. The claim is that because redemption has raised the profits to be earned in the slave trade, people have devised fake redemption schemes. Some reports of fraud have circulated, but it is difficult to assess the magnitude of this problem (Miniter).

Although western redemption undoubtedly raises several thorny issues, including the possibility that it interferes with pre-existing and ongoing indigenous schemes to track and return captives to their families, it is quite ironic that many of its critics have chosen to remain remarkably silent on the failure of the international community to effectively address the underlying human catastrophe (i.e., the horrific abuses alleged by victims) through alternative means. Also ironic is that some of these critics still deny that legal slavery has been implicated, despite the glaring testimony of witnesses and victims.

The GOS and its representatives initially vehemently denied slavery. This initial denial precluded it taking a positive approach to addressing the problem. However, as international scrutiny grew (largely as a result of the publicity campaigns of groups like CSI) and as the number of consistent reports increased, the GOS was forced to make more of an acknowledgment, albeit implicit. It declared that slavers would be punished to the full extent of the law, it announced new laws against slavery, and it has invited members of the international community to come and inspect for themselves. So far, however, the GOS’s limited measures appear to be little more than window dressing. It continues to train and arm the quasi-private militias; there appears to have been little official investigation of victims allegations; nobody has been brought to trial; and raids have continued according to witnesses. Moreover, while slamming redemption, the GOS has done precious little to formulate and implement legal and institutional mechanisms to address the underlying problem, slavery. And why should it have, since the militias are an integral component of its war of attrition against resistant ethnic groups?

The GOS is not the only blameworthy party, however. The international community has also failed to fulfill its obligations under international law. Very few countries have explicitly condemned the GOS for allegedly tolerating slavery within its borders, despite their legal obligation to do so (Slavery Convention and Supplementary Convention). The response of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) presents a compelling example of the inadequacy of the international response. UNICEF has only lately condemned Sudan’s tolerance of slavery (UNICEF Press Release, March 1999). Moreover, one suspects it was compelled to do so in large part by the public attention brought to bear by the work of the redeemers. Unfortunately, UNICEF seems to have spent a considerable amount of time and resources in a highly publicized dispute with CSI, the primary champion and practitioner of redemption. This is disturbing in light of the fact that UNICEF, more than many organizations, has the requisite experience and expertise to positively address the problem of enslavement of women and children. Indeed, it has addressed this and related issues elsewhere by implementing concrete programs, for example, in certain Asian countries.

In responding to the charges of CSI that it has done nothing, UNICEF has proven itself to be almost as interested in protecting its image (as opposed to taking real, positive action) as has been the GOS. If redemption is morally unacceptable to UNICEF, as it has declared, the organization should devise and assist in the implementation of reasonable alternatives within the existing constraints. Calling on the warring parties to drop their guns is not sufficient to address the underlying problem. An end to the war may halt future raids, but it certainly will not address the multitudes of women and children who might remain missing and in subservient conditions after the war ceases. In this regard, tracing and retrieval programs would be useful. UNICEF has conducted similar programs elsewhere. Even if the war does not stop in the near future, however, UNICEF could and morally should assist indigenous efforts to record, trace and retrieve the missing women and children. Ultimately of course, UNICEF needs the mandate and material support from the international community. In turn, the international community must pursue its obligation to oversee the GOS’s adherence to the international conventions on slavery and other human rights documents. Unfortunately, it seems that UNICEF has recently retreated from its March 1999 condemnation of slavery in the Sudan, and has accepted the official GOS line that what is happening is traditional abduction/hostage-taking rather than slavery (Al-Khaleej Nov. 27, 1999). One can only interpret this as UNICEF closing its ears to the victims’ testimony. The more difficult question is “why?”.

In conclusion, the primary, horrific issue of modern slavery in the Sudan has been obscured (perhaps deliberately) in the midst first of the semantic debates about whether slavery exists and now by the secondary debate over redemption. Why have not the GOS and the international community, often so keen to criticize redemption, devised alternative approaches to address the problem? If one is truly appalled by the commodification of a human being in any form, why be eager to stamp out redemption (the response) but resign oneself to the underlying problem, which is human commodification of the ugliest sort imaginable?

What Should be Done?

  • Neutral investigation of victims’ claims must be seriously pursued. It is not appropriate to accept the government’s claims at face value, as many have done. The issue is so serious that it demands independent investigation, uninhibited by restrictions imposed by the GOS.
  • The GOS must stop arming tribal militias and allowing them to seize human beings; it must rigorously enforce both domestic and international laws prohibiting slavery. The GOS will only do these things if enough international pressure is brought to bear upon it, however.
  • International efforts must be combined with indigenous mechanisms for tracing and retrieving missing individuals. Moreover, the GOS must not be allowed to restrict these combined efforts.
  • If the GOS continues to fail to make visible efforts to fulfill its positive obligations, the international community in concert or individually (i.e., individual countries) must pursue the appropriate remedies at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
  • “Human rights organizations must treat slavery as a separate and distinct type of human rights abuse. We have to name the problem as slavery, rather than roll it up into a mishmash of other problems [because] slavery is a complex and dynamic problem that has to be understood in its own right…[we must stop hiding] slavery behind smoke screens of words and ignorance” (Bale, p.259).
  • Some measure of de-politicization must be achieved in the fight against slavery in the Sudan. In particular, the tendency to reduce the issue to one of evangelical competition (between Islamists and Christian fundamentalists) must be stopped. It is a much broader issue. Furthermore, no party has a right to enslave either the body or the spirit of the Sudanese people.
  • Concerned Sudanese must not keep quiet or attempt to obscure the tragic reality in semantics or otherwise. It is not a question of national pride, but a question of humanity and national unity. Educational campaigns in the Sudan at the grassroots level might help in this regard.




References & Selected Bibliography

  • Abdullahi A. An-Na’im, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law, Syracuse University Press, 1990.

  • Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, University of California Press, 1999.

  • Ali Baldo and Ushari Mahmoud, The Al-Deien Massacre, Khartoum, Khartoum University press, 1987.

  • Francis M. Deng, War of Visions: Conflict of Identities in the Sudan, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1995.

  • Bernard K. Freamon, Slavery, Freedom, and the Doctrine of Consensus in Islamic Jurisprudence, Harvard Human Rights Journal, Spring 1998.

  • Sondra Hale, By Any Other Name: Internal State and Military/Militia Violence in Sudan, paper presented at African Studies Association Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, November 1999.

  • Human Rights Watch Background Paper on Slavery and Slavery Redemption in the Sudan, Human Rights Watch, 1999-MAR-12. http://www.hrw.org/hrw/backgrounder/africa/sudan1.htm

  • Human Rights Watch World Report 1999: Sudan: Human Rights Developments. http://www.hrw.org/hrw/worldreport99/africa/sudan.html.

  • Bona Malwal, UNICEF’s Unjustifiable Condemnation of CSI over Slave Redemption, Sudan Democratic Gazette, March 1999.

  • Richard Miniter, The False Promise of Slave Redemption, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1999.

  • Yasmeine Rassam, Contemporary Forms of Slavery and the Evolution of the Prohibition of Slavery and the Slave Trade under Customary International Law, Virginia Journal of International Law, Winter 1999.

  • Peter Verney, Slavery in Sudan – a Human Dilemma, translated into German for Ueberblick, June 1999.

  • Slavery Convention, 60 L.N.T.S. 253, entered into force March 9, 1927.

  • Sudanese Government Denies any Slavery on its own Territory, AFP, January 31, 1999.

  • Sudan Human Rights Organization Cairo Report on Slavery in the Sudan, May-June 1999.

  • Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, 226 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force April 30, 1957.

  • UNICEF, Sudan Slave Trade Must End, Says UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy, Press Release, March 12, 1999. http://www.unicef.org/newsline/99pr10.htm

  • UNICEF and Khartoum Have Bypassed the "Slavery" Issue, Al-Khaleej Nov. 27, 1999 (in English translation).